Video highlights from six years biking around the world

Apologies if you’d been expecting my monthly update and got radio-silence… It was the first time I’ve missed a blog post in the last seven years. My excuse is that I’ve been embroiled in all manner of projects since coming back and the blog had to take a back seat. But I will continue to post here.

Bike lanes and bacon doughnuts: God Bless America

I get sentimental when I leave places behind. Some smarting reminder of all that I have grown to relish suddenly stirs and every memory becomes tainted by a sense of loss and nostalgia.

January the 7th 2010: I was shivering and sitting astride my bicycle in the port of Dover waiting for a barrier across the road to lift so I could board my ferry to France, suspecting then that England would next feature in my life in half a decade or more. ‘Sorry about this’ remarked the lady in the ticket booth ‘the barrier’s a little temperamental’.
‘Oh yeah? Just like my wife!’ announced a burly truck driver who was leaning out of his window and grinning inanely. England, I thought, I will miss you. I will miss your quirky humour, your self-effacing satire, your casual misogyny.

It was Mexico’s job then to issue me a farewell that would serve as a keen reminder that behind me fifteen months and more than 25,000 km of Latin America would soon be dormant, my bond with the continent broken, my experience over and condensed into a scrap yard of memories. The reminder was a giant duck. To be more specific – a man dressed in a monstrous yellow duck costume who was dancing on a street corner and holding a sign which advertised the pharmacy beside him. He was raving as if his life depended on it, to some salsa infused Latin blend which blasted from speakers at a volume that would ensure it was audible in the stratosphere. So questions – What do ducks have to do with pharmacies? Why is the duck dancing? Who came up with this idea, and how drunk were they?

The answer to these of course is irrelevant – this is Mexico, or more broadly Latin America, and here loud music, dancing and dressing up are all essential ingredients of the Latin lifestyle. So why not use them to get more people into your pharmacy? It makes perfect sense, all except the choice of animal outfit, but probably the duck costume was just the one that happened to be available that morning.

The approaching hassle and hoopla involved in crossing the US border at Tijuana troubled me and I was convinced that US immigration would find some tiny infraction on which to deprive me of my 90 day VISA waver. US border guards don’t have a shining reputation in the areas of reason or lenience (or humility, humour, fairness, benevolence or compassion). I believe eye contact with a US immigration official is grounds enough for a good thrashing and a life ban from the USA. Referring to an official as buddy, bub, dude, geezer or my man carries an mandatory sentence of 25 to life in solitary confinement. Potential border guards at interview are made to watch videos of dogs doing human things in hilarious dog trousers. Failure to laugh means the candidate has either no sense of humour, or just didn’t get it. Either way that makes them the perfect machine the US government needs to stop all the scary drug addicts, terrorists, job seekers and riffraff getting in. Or at least that’s what I believed before crossing the border, I was about to be proved wrong.

Disabled people quite rightly don’t wait in line like everyone else at the Tijuana border but instead go straight through to the gate. You would not believe how many disabled people cross this border, call me cynical but I soon became convinced some entrepreneurial Mexican was renting out white canes and walking sticks to those waiting in line just down the block.

Eventually I reached the gate to meet what could only be described as a triumph in personnel selection. You would not mess with this lady, the face of the USA looked fresh from bludgeoning a small group of orphans to death for kicks. Once she signalled for me to move forward I wheeled my bike cautiously past only to hear ‘Hey!‘ I froze and turned slowly, trembling, half expecting her to radio in the SWOT team. ‘Just leave your bike here, I’ll watch it for you. It’ll be easier than dragging it through. So where are you riding from?’. I was so taken aback it took me ten seconds to mumble Mexico, which of course was obvious.

The man who would or would not issue my 90 day VISA waver had the opportunity to add some hilarity to my story but he was nothing like the stereotype either and turned out to be very pleasant, all smiles and quips, though he did linger a second longer than was comfortable over my Syrian VISA which takes up a whole page in my passport. ‘Wouldn’t want you as my doctor!’ he joshed after I told him I hadn’t worked for three years. It was a fair point.

I filled in the immigration form, making sure I added ticks to all the right boxes.

‘Have you ever been convicted or involved in Genocide?’ Yes or No.

“Genocide? well now, let me think, I’m so god damn busy these days. What was I doing Tuesday?…. Let me just phone my PA and check. Hi Jane. Yes I’m fine. Just at immigration, this nice American gentlemen wants to know if I’ve been involved in genocide at all over the last few years, can you just check in my diary for me? Great. Nothing? Sure? Maybe check under W for War Crimes will you, just to be on the safe side.”

The strange tick boxes continued “Have you ever been involved in espionage or sabotage?” Now my guess is that someone clever enough to work as a professional spy for some top secret agency or political movement would not get caught out by a tick box. I can imagine the sweat cascading down the face of a shifty looking panic-stricken man in a large over coat holding a briefcase whose brain is screaming ‘yes or no? YES OR NO?! Shit! Play it cool and think goddamn it, THINK!’

So finally into the United States for the first time ever, country number 41 of my world ride and 55 of my life. Not even a cursory search, no drugs dogs, no SWOT team, no white noise or pepper spray, just a thumbs up from the customs guy and a brand spanking new stamp in my now cluttered passport. I rolled my bike out into what I thought was San Diego – immediately there was something mightily familiar about it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it – perhaps it was the many Taco stands, or the Spanish road signs, or the fact that everyone was speaking Spanish, or ALL THE MEXICANS. I was so bewildered I had to return to immigration to check I hadn’t sauntered though the wrong turn-style and been directed accidentally back into Mexico, but no, this was the USA. That fact became clear when I ventured into a fast food joint to be served a burger roughly the size of my head and ate whilst cars pulled into the drive-through with wheels roughly the size of an average Mexican family.

People, I noticed, were overwhelming polite in stores, often so sunny in fact they left me dumb struck. Crazy people shuffled around muttering expletives, and there were a lot of crazy people. There were parking meters and malls and joggers and 12 lane freeways and Americans doing American things in their natural habitat. There were benches advertising injury lawyers which reminded me of a sentence by one of my favourite American authors Tom Robbins:

The logic of a contemporary American: “I’m suffering. Therefore, somebody must owe me money. I’m hiring a lawyer.”

Photo courtesy of mi amigo Max, thanks Max
I zigzagged through the southern reaches of San Diego trying to get north without an illegal jaunt down the freeway, listening to golden era west coast hip hop in my IPOD (America’s greatest invention, the hip hop not the IPOD) and soon pulled into a cafe outside of which a sign boasted ‘Top Gun. Sleazy bar scene filmed here July 1985‘. A beautiful waitress called Adra paid for my drink and told me she was getting off in half an hour, if I waited she would ride with me. Three hours later, drinking one of the twenty varieties of on-tap beer amongst the hipsters of Ocean Beach, eating noodles someone else had insisted on paying for, my inbox brimming with offers of places to crash from here to Vancouver, I was chuffed to bits to be in the States.

Life, I was sure, would be suddenly and soothingly easy once in the USA, it would be like taking off a tight pair of shoes. As it turned out, I was half right. Here cyclists are treated as worthy members of the road using community and not like some strange tribe that’s getting in the way of progress. Signs emblazoned with bikes declared ‘Share The Road’ and I felt the desire to pucker up and kiss them. And there were bike lanes, lanes just for bikes, a concept so alien to me now after my journey through Latin America that I almost forgot they had been invented. On each of the two occasions I happened upon a bike lane in South America I had an urge to call up the mayor’s office and ask politely if he or she would be available for a hug. Of course on one of these occasions the lane drifted peacefully on for a whole 100 metres before inexplicably terminating at a tree stump.

The USA – a place where I can choose from 17 varieties of peanuts in a store that opens at seven, closes at eleven and has a title to reassure me of this fact. A place in which I don’t have to worry if the ATM will spit out my card and keep the cash. A place I can drink the tap water without fear of amoebic dysentery and a place with things called signposts. HALLELUJAH!

Everything is bigger (including some of the people), faster (except the really big people), snazzier, flashier and a whole lot more familiar. But things have got a little more complicated too. I can’t afford hostels, though hospitality abounds. Internet cafes and call centres have vanished so I coughed up for my first computer and phone for three years, a pair of jeans would complete the Normal Life ensemble but I don’t have the courage just yet. People keep telling me (so far very politely) to take my bike outside when I wheel it inside stores, a habit formed from three years touring countries where I can. And there are rules, so many rules. In California I can’t drink a beer on the beach full stop, or get served in a bar without ID despite being more than a decade over the legal age limit. Technically (this is true) I can’t even throw a Frisbee on a beach in LA without a life guards permission. America might pride itself on being the country of the free, but it incarcerates proportionally more people, (many, many more people) than any other country on earth. Not all of these opened a beer on the beach, though there are more Ultimate Frisbee players in jail in the US than anywhere else on our planet. And I believe that’s a fact.

So America is a confusing place then, and so what? The fact that ‘lands of contrast’ has become a horrible cliche and features somewhere in the Lonely Planet guidebook to every country on earth is because in reality every country has it’s bizarre contradictions. My friends Benny and Jo arrived from the UK and their present, I am sure, was a comment on contemporary America. They brought me a bacon doughnut. Surely nothing better symbolises sweet and savoury America than the bacon doughnut. My palate is still in some sort of irreconcilable civil war.

The Bacon-Spangled Doughnut
The Pacific Coast Highway terminates abruptly on the way to LA, the only options are the freeway (illegal for bikers) and a road through the Pendleton Army Base. A police officer nearby informed me I would need a helmet to ride through the latter, but I thought I would try my luck anyway since I don’t have one and so was out of options. The soldier I spoke with seemed to have some sort of severe vocal tick and he would intermittently blurt out “Liability, Sir!” in answer to any of my questions and pleas to be allowed to pass. I retreated to think about my strategy but the police officer came back, now angry after finding out from the soldier with Tourettes that I had tried to get in when he had told me not to. Once he finally chilled out he radioed colleagues to find out the location of the nearest thrift store so that I could buy a helmet for the 13 miles of high liability virtually car-free, pancake-flat, benign bike path where the greatest risk would be collision with my own shadow. When one couldn’t be located close by we had a heated debate about my options (which he eventually conceded were non-existent) and I told him I would try the freeway. Incredibly he agreed this might be my best option. He AGREED! Overwhelmed by this I waved him off before he changed his mind, cruised onto the freeway and cycled as fast as I could to the next exit (stealthily past the highway patrol who were writing up a ticket for somebody and didn’t notice me). Then I was off and onto a bike path once again shouting ‘Phew!’

Now I’m not going to argue that helmets are unnecessary, that frankly, would be mental. In fact if you called me an idiot for not wearing one I might agree with you. In some countries helmets are compulsory full stop and I’m surprised that they’re not in California because there are many more outlandish health and safety measures, warnings and mandates in place, a spin off from the litigation heavy society here. As I reached Los Angeles a sign warned me I was entering a Tsunami Risk Zone. Wow. Surely as I’ve been cycling the coastline of the Pacific rim I have been biking in a ‘Tsunami Risk Zone’ for more than a year. I didn’t worry much about tsunamis before, perhaps I should have? I didn’t realise how much danger I was in. And it continued – The host of the planetarium show in the observatory in the Hollywood hills warned me about motion sickness. There are signs in America that warn people about the grave threat of falling acorns. Clearly there are a lot of things to worry about here, strangely much, much more than in the wild parts of Africa and South America I have spent the last three years. I had better be careful.

“Sorry Santa, those are the rules, I don’t care about how upset the orphans will be.”
First you have to pay for their funeral, and now this
Between San Diego and LA I stayed in a hiker biker camp for six dollars: Thank you USA, I forgive you now for getting me all scared about tsunamis, you have redeemed yourself. These are great little spots inside the State Parks and dotted all the way up the Pacific coast. It was here I met Chris, another cycle tourer who was on his way to a course to learn how to be a tour leader for the Adventure Cycling Association. We biked together the whole of the next day, cycled up through Long Beach, where I must report Snoop Dog was nowhere to be seen, and camped on someones lawn after getting nice and drunk.

The following day I consulted Googlemaps and made my way to Silver Lake to meet some old friends. Googlemaps is a wonderful thing though it doesn’t, as I found out, steer you away from gang land territory. ‘You are entering the City of Compton’ a sign told me, gulp. Having forgotten to purchase ‘The Cycle Touring Guide to Compton’ I decided to up my velocity.

Benny and Jo are old friends from the UK who were on holiday here and alongside their friend Rachel we busied ourselves taking in the sights – the freaks of Venice beach, the Hollywood mansions and hills, the Getty museum and more before watching Benny perform a gig in Hollywood. Benny AKA Benny Diction is an MC (my mum would say ‘one of those rappers’), check out one of his recent videos. Afterwards I stayed with Ryan, a genuinely nice, generous fella and the man in charge of Exploration Challenge, a TV series in production which features yours truly.

I am occasionally looking up at tall buildings in a style similar to Crocodile Dundee when he arrives in New York. I still find myself walking into a room, bar or restaurant and thinking ‘Wow, look how many Americans there are in here!’. And soon afterwards ‘Oh yeah, right.‘ But I am adjusting to the American way of life, mainly by a daily habit of consuming my weight in cheese.

Here are a five things I have learnt so far in the USA
  • Whilst store keepers are consistently chirpy, welcoming souls they do not like it when people stand by the door walking rapidly in and out in order to activate an automatic voice which tells departing shoppers to ‘Have a Nice Day!’
  • A sign with the words ‘Ped Xing’ is not, as I had hoped, advertising the presence of a road named after one of the lesser known (and Chinese) founding fathers. It’s just a short (and aesthetically painful) version of ‘Pedestrian Crossing’.
  • Every Californian is either vegan, or has at least 20 vegan friends
  • If I order a tuna (pronounced in the British way) sandwich I will receive a chicken one
  • The policy of prescription ‘Medical Marijuana’ is the most corrupt and bizarre system ever invented (and is tantamount to legalisation) though this topic alone deserves it’s own full post.

For the last week I’ve been staying with my second cousin Alan in the San Fernando Valley and have spent my days practising my presentation, writing, watching South Park and chatting in the evenings. It has been boss and just what I needed.

So thank you, thank you, thank you to my American hosts for a bad ass introduction to the USA: – Adra, Sam, Sol, Rachel, Ryan, Max, Alan and family. Cheers, you lovely people. I leave LA at the end of this month after some school and public presentations (I have given two school talks so far with around 15 more planned, including the very prestigious Oaks Christian on Tuesday where I will speak in front of 1000 high school pupils), then it’s San Francisco where my Mum will meet me and up the Pacific coast, dodging tsunamis, through Oregon and Washington until I hit Vancouver where my friend Claire will join me for a chunk of Canada.

Last month I won the annual photo competition for the Adventure Cycling Association’s annual photography competition with this winning shot from the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia…. here are the other finalists.

Stevey Gonzales

Admiring a salt lake on the Baja peninsula of Mexico

Contrary to popular belief football is not Mexico’s national sport. It’s sweeping. Mexico’s women are more intensely devoted to sweeping than a gap toothed, tattoo-branded, wailing Milwall fan is to football. Sweeping in Mexico begins before sunrise and continues well into the night. The same floors and spaces are swept more than a dozen times a day, I know, I’ve watched this happen. Every so often I am evicted from restaurants – ‘you’re closing?’ I ask, ‘Si Señor. For sweeping.’

Paradise lost and found

Paradise Found?

A typical decision in my life circa 2009 –
Mr Jones is complaining of abdominal pain, should I rush him to theatre for an appendisectomy?

A typical decision circa 2012 –
If I buy some mayonnaise today, will it last until Tuesday?

For a time escaping the shackles of meaningful decision making was a cosy spin-off to life on the road though eventually it’s becomes nice to have a proper quandary to mull over, and one that doesn’t involve dairy produce. Whilst choosing the right boat and captain for the sea crossing from Colombia to Panama may not be on par with deciding the fate of Mr Jones’ intestinal system, it was not a decision to be taken lightly. An Australian girl I ran into in Lima had a tale of woe which went something like:

Incompetent, drunk captain = irreparably damaged boat = Titanic-like emergency in open ocean = evacuation into a life raft and loss of all possessions.

Rumour had it that El Capitan had sabotaged the crossing for an insurance pay out on the sunken vessel making ‘Disreputable Sea Dogs’ another on my evolving list of ‘Crazy Shit To Worry About’ right below hurricanes, tsunamis, pirates and shark attack. An even more common difficulty on the grapevine was that of boats running out of food mid-crossing, I added this to the top of my mental list, above tsunami, and wondered whether an enforced hunger strike would drive me first to suicide or to mutiny and cannibalism. Just in case I decided that choosing a boat with a chubby captain and tender looking first mate would be a sensible insurance policy.

After a year biking through Africa the name of one craft though steals my attention – The African Queen, a forty foot Catamaran. Tentatively I sign up and arrive early at the harbour, swiftly followed by my fellow sea farers, and after quick meet and greets we head to the supermarket for the much more important booze run. We return to stash our main luggage in the hold and each of us carry a small rucksack for the voyage, mine is 50% beer, 25 % rum and 25% stuff I probably don’t need. Our motley posse includes a lanky Dutchman, a Finnish honeymooning couple, a Swizz couple and a duo of hard drinking Aussie lads. Our captain is Rudy, a veteran sailor in his late 40’s with blond curly neck length locks and bronzed skin who is donning a black bandanna, Oakley’s and surf shorts – my first impression is somewhere between Garth from Wayne’s World and a beach bum with more than a touch of pirate thrown in. He’s quadriligual, although swears only in window-shatteringly loud Italian, and an incredible chef, a fact that comes to light as he serves up our first meal, Octopus Risotto and I make a mental note – always sail with an Italian Captain. The only other member of crew is Rudy’s Colombian totty – a curvaceous, spicy mamacita twenty years his junior who sports inch long bright pink nails, a host of bracelets, Gucci sunglasses (one of around twenty pairs hanging up inside the cabin) and has a penchant for marijuana. She is as ocean savvy as your average agoraphobic. All this makes her in my view simultaneously both the absolute best and absolute worst First Mate for an ocean voyage. Rudy, I’m guessing, senses no such dichotomy.

There’s something reassuring about the Darien Gap, the hunk of wild, indomitable territory that divides Panama and Colombia. In a world where people have driven cars to the North Pole, have jumped to earth from space and have cycled across the surface of frozen lakes, the Darien is still sin careterra and whilst there are rough trails, most consider the region impassible, at least for the rational of mind. It seems that if I did completely abandoned my senses and began an unsupported swim from Colombia to Panama I might have a slightly better time of it than a land crossing across the same frontier. People might even raise a glass and call me brave at my funeral instead of shaking their heads and muttering “What an idiot!”, the only label that could be sensibly ascribed to anyone who takes on the guerrilla-controlled, mosquito-ridden tract of dense jungle frequented only by the ruling drug cartels and the occasional loping jaguar. Unless a local drugs lord has your back, the Darien is the reserve of the careless and the insane. To get around the problem you could fly but for the more inspired there’s a better option – for years chartered yachts have made the crossing, ferrying tourists from Cartagena to the coast of Panama and stopping en route at the San Blas Islands, an autonomous region partly inhabited by the Kuna Indians (foreigners having been kicked off years ago) and, this is true, a place in which until relatively recently the primary unit of currency was the coconut. Which is just brilliant.

We haul up the anchor, set sail and stand out on the deck watching the modern stone henge of Cartagena’s high rise apartments glide by, like the gappy grin of a madman smiling us off. The send off party soon join us, a school of bottle nosed dolphins that slice through the surf and make brief loops into the salty air. Our enthusiasm for sea life though is soon quashed by the choppy ocean which renders most of us landlubbers aboard unable to walk, converse or move much at all. The Dutchman can’t eat fearing a post-prandial spraying of lunch over the ship’s side, back from whence it came. It’s like standing on top of a prone epileptic, which incidentally there is no good reason to do and is not comfortable, safe or fair on the epileptic.

That night we rotate through 90 minute shifts to watch for ships whilst rolling waves strike the boat at tangents as we wobble through the Caribbean propelled by a sail that puffs and whips and drives us at ten knots into the night. A phosphorescent algae lights up the churning wake of the Catamaran like a disco ball – it’s a spooky, surreal time where I hallucinate ghost ships.

Towards dusk on the second day I spot them first – a small grey bump on the horizon and then, like fresh mosquito bites, more and more segue into view. The sun spills it’s shine onto the ocean creating a linear blaze of cherry-red, like a celebrity carpet, the African Queen our limousine. The island we pass first is the anticipated vision of paradise – it appears we’ve been consumed by a computer and are in fact sailing through Windows wallpaper. The San Blas archipelago are so often assigned throw away and cliched labels – idyllic, picture-perfect, breath-taking – but then the islands are cliched by nature representing for many the archetypal tropical paradise. Yes there’s white sand, turquoise waters, palm trees, coconuts, yarda yarda, but I yearn for more than just the postcard imagery. Like friends, lovers, nature and travel itself, it’s the imperfections that can thrill and seduce the most, and so secretly I yearn for a serpent in Eden.

We are not alone here. Our first guest is a turtle breezing through the turquoise and stretching it’s neck to breach the tops of the waves and take the odd gasp of air. Minutes later a manta ray breaks the surface and dives back beneath the gentle ripples whilst a lone pelican inspects us from above, circling and dodging palm fronds. A communal dive and swim to shore ends in a quandary – to admire or to explore? I leave the others gazing longingly into the lustrous sheen of the sun-drenched Caribbean tide and head instead along the shoreline like a castaway exploring a new home. Visually the metaphor works as well.

The Finnish couple have disappeared to a more secluded part of the island, if I was one half of a loved-up couple in paradise I’d be off to do the same, one for the bucket list, despite sand in places you’d rather it wasn’t. As I meander insouciently around the island a host of white conch shells appear, semi-submerged in sand like skulls in a mass grave. I move inwards to explore beyond the limits of this beach and my heart drops – behind the first row of palms resides a huge pile of litter and accompanying swarm of sand flies. They are as out of place as a punk in a yoga class.

We anchor up and sail to another island of the San Blas, it’s the size of a football pitch, the shape of an arrow head and hosts showy tourists on big budgets in expensive huts who are fiercely busy relishing the sloth of island life by doing exactly nada. There are 378 islands in the San Blas and somebody reminds me of the common dictum “one for every day of the year” which sounds to me like a tag line concocted by a tourist agency and makes me think two things – First, somebody can’t count, and second, wow, I wonder if anyone has tried that? The islands vary greatly in size, some precarious mounds of sand with room enough for just a couple of palms, the front line in climate change and centimetres away from extinction. Others, around fifty, are larger and inhabited by the Kuna Indians.

In the evening with settled bellies and surer legs the group bonding can begin, but the sun dashes for cover under cloud and an abrupt tropical storm unleashes it’s fury, so we rush out onto the deck to wash off the salt. “Is Raining!” Screams Rudy “Is Emotional!” and he dances around the African Queen babbling incoherently. Afterwards we sit shivering until someone suggests a cup of tea but is swiftly trumped by a call for rum for which we all assent. Rudy declines the mixer on the grounds that Coca Cola is bad for you.

The days progress – Cuba Libre for breakfast, Yellow Snapper (harpooned) and king crab for lunch, Italian cuisine for dinner with beer aperitifs and rum chasers. “Thanks for the food” we all chirp after another gourmet garlic-heavy delight, but meet Rudy’s retort “no no no. Thanks for the eat. I’m happy when you are happy”. Filling our bellies and the game of endlessly getting tipsy is punctuated by snorkeling and siestas and by now we are all sporting the rosy hue of England’s Away From Home Shirt. Exertion? Well yes, some, but here it’s relative – snapping coconuts, back flips off the deck, the tiresome chore of switching hammocks.

Relishing a tropical storm on deck
For our third night we anchor down and spend the evening on an island amongst a gaggle of ageing American hippies who’s diction is dominated by “heavy” and “far-out”. They’ve been mooching around the San Blas for more than six years, occasionally chartering boats for tourists, and there’s something cheesy and reactionary about them, or perhaps that’s just my instant distrust of those who openly market themselves with romantic tags. “Hey we’re wanderers man” insists one when  I ask where he’s from. “Yeah, we’re, like, nomads pipes up another. They are fine musicians though and keep us entertained with Bob Dylan and the rest, but it still feels like a Beach Boys reunion so we head back to the boat and have our own party which fairly predictably culminates in drunken skinny dipping, which is predictably initiated by the Finns. Rudy wears a huge African mask for most of the night and howls with laughter. The group are completely enamoured by his antics – its not that his jokes are belly-clutchingly, foam-at-the-mouth funny, usually in fact he makes no sense at all, but his reaction to everything is an infectious explosion of histrionics so ridiculous and cheering that you can’t help but join him.

On the last night Rudy announces that the Kuna Indians are having their monthly knee’s up on an island close by. We sail off and soon encounter a very different San Blas, these postcards wouldn’t sell as well. There are hundreds of thatched huts jammed into every inch of bustling land where women wash their children, men load and unload boats and children carry out their chores whilst wooden dug-outs ease through the surrounding sea – people living lives rather than escaping them. The Kuna are tiny in stature, spiritual in nature and the women are attired in traditional dress – a vivid concoction of bracelets and colours that scream and bellow and with a nose ring that completes the ensemble. We take the launch to shore, the scene that greets us is the result of one furious moonshine named chicha fuerte. ‘Totalled’ may not be a proper adjective worthy of the Oxford English dictionary, but its the best one. Sloshed, leathered, blind drunk – they don’t come close. Everybody over the age of 8 and not pregnant is off their head, neck and body. They can’t talk. Many are comatose. Women are being carried by friends whilst screaming and babbling drunk-speak and kids sway like slow motion boxers in the first round, but with a stagger and a bellowed drawl. There’s a religious component to this drunken orgy that I admit I know little about but even so the curious tableau is a touch menacing, a touch sad, a touch hilarious and more than a touch understandable. London at 7pm on any given Friday is much the same, add suits and boozers, though the British can evidently handle their grog better than the Kuna.

On the final day we sail towards the coast of Panama which assaults the sea scape I’ve grown accustomed to and the montaine spine of Central America protrudes like the fins of a fish, the mountain tops though are lost in the ashen smudge of distant rain. Behind us the freckles of the San Blas fade from view as the blue face of the Caribbean winks us a sly goodbye.

Paradise Lost?

Amongst those who know me well, it’s my manifest lack of any sense of direction that is the most illustrious and conspicuous target for mockery. The list of places and spaces I have managed to completely lose my bearings is infinite and tedious so I won’t recount it here, but it includes the hospital I worked in for three years, several supermarkets and department stores, most of London and every campsite and festival I have ever made my temporary home. Things are worse than bad – I once slept rough in a field in Argentina when I tried for hours and failed to find my hostel. When people remark “Don’t worry, it’s impossible to get lost” I sigh, for with that one-liner they have sealed my fate. In my early teens losing my house was a particular favourite pastime and brought much angst to the parents of my friends who drove me around in circles through Oxford and who must have been convinced I was having them on. “How can anyone not remember where they live!” The enduring words of one despairing father. It’s a disability, like colour blindness, club foot and Welsh-ness. A miracle then I have made it this far on my bicycle and were it not for that ingenious convenience of The Map, I would still be negotiating my way through Surrey muttering to myself “Now I’m sure I’ve seen that bridge before. No, wait… was it that bridge?”

So to Panama City, the world’s most losable-in city and me, the world’s most heinous of all lost wanderers who even St Jude can’t save. I set out with a simple mandate – to find a camping shop. And I walked. And I guessed. And I gorped, and I walked some more. And hours slid by, and continents drifted apart. My flip flops pounded the street for so long that erythematous streaks criss-crossed the dorsum of each foot. The oh so familiar feeling of lostness descended as the city segued into a oneness that jeered at my incompetence and repeated it’s garbled song. A trio of Kuna women (the same trio?) gabbing by a corner shop (the same shop?). An old lady sold single cigarettes and there were fat people, lots of them, and lots of MacDonalds too. And lots of fat people queueing up to eat at MacDonalds. Complicated maths, I know.

Then for while my misadventure took a more sinister twist – people thinned out, saucer-eyed men marked me out with an ireful stare and scanned the surrounds (for witnesses?). Toddlers sat in heaps of rubbish whilst drunks shambled by using drain pipes for support and houses became rubble-strewn gutted shells, unlivable in at first glance and then – not quite. A couple of drawn and haggard prostitutes slumped by the door of a brothel, one black eye a piece. The city’s stink was an overpowering layered assault on my nostrils with wafting excrement, fish, something musty, cooking oil and smog all making fleeting passes. Then back into the drama of a busier part where shouting hawkers out-screamed the taxi drivers who out-honked the roar of engines and a cacophony of Latin infused rhythms from Panasonic shops trumped everything. By now if you had traced my journey on a map you would come up with something similar to the creative stylings of a crackhead on an etch-a-sketch.

It’s a little known fact that the ability to give good directions when asked by a stranger in the street is carried by a single gene, located on chromosome 7, and resident in the cell nucleus of around 28% of the population. It is often inherited alongside the ability to find car keys (chromosome 13) and the tendency to wear odd socks (chromosome 8). In Panama though, by some fluke of genomic spread only 0.0000001% of the population possess the gene to give good directions, and he didn’t live in this part of town. Thus my task of getting unlost became even harder. Call it a Colombian hangover, but I was not instantly taken by Panama City, a sprawling competition of smells and sounds and clutter. Getting lost though can give you a fresh perspective and there’s beauty in the dark underbelly and the cogs of any city if you look hard enough. After hours trudging and mooning through her weird maze, she hadn’t won my heart but she somehow made more sense. There was a satisfaction to making the transition from skimming the surface to full body dunk, involuntary though it was, and as I have found many times, having no internal compass can be a blessing in disguise.

Eventually a land mark I recognised for certain this time and soon enough I was back in my hostel. After all that calorie-consuming vagabonding I was tired and hungry so after a quick rest I went out for food. I kid you not, within 15 minutes I was utterly lost once again.

Two weeks of contrast, from the vice-ridden slums of a central American capital to an equally vice-ridden island ‘paradise’. Next up is Costa Rica for New’s Year Eve with my friend Jess who’s coming out to visit me from the UK. And then north once again, always north.

New friends in Panama